By Whitney Spicer and Sam Isaacs
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – A bipartisan group of 10 Virginia House members has sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation, urging the federal legislators to join in opposing the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plans to charge tolls on Interstate 95.
The letter noted that U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., has come out against VDOT’s proposal to impose a $4 toll on personal vehicles and a $12 toll on trucks as they pass through Sussex County in the Tidewater area near North Carolina.
“I commend Congressman Forbes for his outspoken opposition to the plan, and now ask that the entire Virginia Congressional Delegation join in opposition to VDOT’s plan to toll I-95 in Sussex County,” said the letter, which was drafted by Delegate Christopher Peace, R-Hanover.
“We would ask that you communicate your concerns directly to the Federal Highway Administration and encourage them to not approve the plan, and particularly not take any action during the current General Assembly session.”
The letter was co-signed by six Republican delegates – John Cox of Ashland, John O’Bannon of Henrico, Tommy Wright of Victoria, Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield, Gordon Helsel of Poquoson, and Lee Ware of Powhatan.
Three Democratic delegates also signed the letter: Bob Brink of Arlington, Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg, and Roslyn Tyler of Jarrat.
The letter notes that numerous groups and citizens have expressed opposition to tolling. They include 23 local governments, 15 statewide business associations, five economic and planning authorities, public safety organizations and private businesses, and more than 6,800 individuals.
The 10 delegates listed several reasons for opposing the tolls, including possible environmental and economic impact.
The document stated that tolls on I-95 would cause 35-40 percent of the interstate’s traffic to divert onto local roads in an attempt to avoid the charges. It also said tolling would cost jobs and hurt businesses in Virginia.
“The proposed toll location places an undue and unfair burden on families and businesses in Southside Virginia, one of the poorest areas in the state,” the letter said.
It noted that VDOT has applied to the Federal Highway Administration for approval to put toll booths on I-95 between mile markers 20 and 24 in Sussex County. Fees would also be collected at the exit and entrance ramps before and after the tolling plaza.
The delegates believe this would be the first step in implementing tolling throughout the state.
“Localities along all of Virginia’s interstates should thoughtfully consider the precedent that this plan will set for future tolling facilities,” the letter stated.
Cox fears that tolls might be imposed on I-95 in Caroline County, part of House District 55, which he represents.
“There has been some discussion within VDOT that a toll plaza might be in Caroline’s future,” Cox said. “The citizens of Caroline that commute on I-95 would pay a significant toll tax, and receive less in road maintenance funds in return.”
He believes the excise tax on gasoline is a fairer way than tolls for funding the transportation system.
“The excise tax is paid by everyone that drives a motor vehicle on the highways. The more you drive, the more you pay. And if you don’t use the roads, you don’t pay,” Cox said. “The fuel tax is much more efficient in that the revenue is already being collected by fuel retailers. The state doesn’t have to establish toll plazas, or a bureaucracy to administer the collection of tolls.”
According to the delegates’ letter, 38 percent of the revenue collected from tolls during the first six years would go to maintenance, construction and running of the tolling facility.
“The cost of building a toll plaza is expensive, and from what I understand, it will take a long time to make that money back,” Robinson said.
Tyler said highway tolls would have a harsh impact on her constituents in House District 75, which includes Sussex County.
“The idea of a $4 toll in that area is unheard of and unbearable for our survival and way of life,” Tyler said.
The letter noted that state legislators are considering proposals that would require the General Assembly’s approval before any new tolls could be implemented on highways in Virginia.
Peace is sponsoring such a measure – House Bill 2196. The bill is awaiting action by the House Transportation Committee.